Beginnings of the Reformation

Wittenberg is where the Reformation began. Beginning as early as 1511, the Augustinian hermit Martin Luther taught at the recently-founded University and gradually developed a new theology. The indulgence controversy in 1517-18 made clear that his theology had the inherent potential to call into question many of the fundamental theological assumptions of the medieval church. As a result, in the years that followed, Luther’s teachings radically transformed the church and the world. In the process, Wittenberg became a laboratory for testing out his ideas for ecclesiastical renewal. What  Luther worked out conceptually in his writings and put into practice in the city had great influence far and wide. During the middle decades of the Sixteenth Century, the “Wittenberg Reformation” grew into early modern Lutheranism.

Illustration: The Castle Church is one of the places where the Reformation began. Here Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on Indulgences on 31 October 1517.

Wittenberg: Birthplace of the Reformation

Traces of the Reformation are still visible in Wittenberg today. The old town is divided into three sections. On the western end sits the residence of the elector with its famous Castle Church to whose doors Luther nailed the 95 Theses.  On the eastern end is the university quarter with the Leucorea, the university’s teaching center, Luther’s “Black Monastery,” where the Augustinian Friars lived, and Melanchthon’s house. In between in the center are the buildings for the inhabitants of the town, namely, the town hall, the marketplace, the parish church, and the complex of buildings belonging to the local artist and entrepreneur, Lucas Cranach. The old city runs along one long street (Collegienstrasse/Schlossstrasse) which connects all three sections. Today on this one street are four UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Castle Church, Luther House, the Parish Church of St. Mary, and Melanchthon House.

Illustration: The City of Wittenberg would have been of no great importance, if it hadn’t been for the theologians there who developed new ideas and the printers who spread them. The 95 These on Indulgences are an important example of the new theology and its dissemination (Geheimes Staatsarchiv Berlin, Leipzig 1517, I. HA, Rep. 13, Nr. 4-5a, Fasz. 1).

The threefold core message of the Wittenberg Reformation

Core Message 1

Sola scriptura: The Reformation rediscovery of the Bible

Core Message 2

Jesus Christ: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Core Message 3

“Justified by faith” (Rom 3:28).

The impact of the “Wittenberg Reformation”

The guiding principles of the Wittenberg Reformation can be summarized in the four “solas”: the Bible alone (sola scriptura), Christ alone (solus Christus), by grace alone (sola gratia), by faith alone (sola fide). By focusing on on justifying faith, the message of the Wittenberg Reformation has the power to fundamentally renew the church, so that it devotes itself to passing on of this faith in Christ. This faith gives freedom to implement the renewal step by step and to integrate helpful traditions into it.

The Wittenberg model of church reform influenced the course of events in many places. In some places, the theology and praxis developed in Wittenberg were closely followed; in others, they were altered or partly rejected, yet even then they still sparked those visions for renewal which were fostered instead, e.g. in Zurich, Strasbourg, or Geneva

Illustration: In 1522 Luther published his German translation of the New Testament (WLB Stuttgart, Bb deutsch 152201, title page).

“Sibling Reformations“: The Wittenberg Gallery of European Reformers

For the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s birth in 1983, the artist Renate Brömme created two stained-glass windows for the Castle Church which depict twelve European Reformers. These portraits, with their names and countries, evince the impact of the Wittenberg Reformation as an international event which quickly crossed borders, deeply impacting the whole continent. Nevertheless, as it spread throughout Europe, the Reformation’s local expression changed to reflect the different cultures it encountered. Although a part of the family of Reformation movements, e.g., Scottish and French Calvinism are distinct expressions of the message of the reformation, differing from, e.g., Danish Lutheranism or Anglicanism in England.

Yet, despite their significant differences, all of the European Reformations share a common history and basic principles. Therefore, they are “Sibling Reformations,” just as Brömme has portrayed them. Many of the Reformers in these stained-glass windows either studied in Wittenberg or were deeply influenced by the Wittenberg Reformation. Even if the renewal movements in Zurich, Copenhagen, Geneva, Riga, Paris, Budapest, Canterbury, and other cities partly went their own way, the heritage of Wittenberg was present in all their Reformation churches.

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